While the New Statesman’s literary pages attracted a diverse range of reviewers over the years, the prickly, politically ambivalent poet Philip Larkin would not perhaps be regarded as the most likely contributor. Yet as this appraisal of the first volume of Thomas Hardy’s letters, published in 1978, shows, he brought a bleak wit and acute critical gifts to his occasional contributions, transcending any notions of political correctness. Selected by Robert Taylor
Hardy’s burial 50 years ago in Westminster Abbey, with the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, representatives of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge and six of the most famous writers of the day acting as pallbearers, was an occasion that would seem to admit little chance of a subsequent increase in reputation. Yet, half a century later, there has certainly been no decline. If Hardy’s fame has grown no higher, it has become deeper, broader, more luxuriant; no doubt the present volume, the first of a complete and informatively edited collection of his letters, was timed to appear this year, but it needs no anniversary to justify it. Hardy’s stature now is such that its publication was inevitable.
At the same time, any reviewer of this first instalment would do well to follow the example of its editors and be frank. We know already that Hardy was not a natural correspondent: as Professor Pottle said, he husbanded his genius and never intentionally spilled any of it into this form. We have what he wrote to his first wife (Dearest Emmie, 1963) and to Florence Henniker (One Rare Fair Woman, 1973), and its drab discretion (‘Will you caution the servants about turning on and off the gas’) suggests that, even if other substantial collections were still unpublished, they would in all probability be equally unremarkable. And there is nothing here to contradict this, even though the first may be the least interesting volume of the seven that are promised. Although it reputedly contains less than a seventh of the total collection, it covers well over half his life – up to, in fact, the great watershed of his reputation, Tess of the d’Urbervilles in 1892 (there are more letters here from that year than any other). People do not seem to have kept Hardy’s letters at this time: apart from those to Emma Lavinia Hardy and Edmund Gosse, these that we now have are mostly to editors, publishers and occasional correspondents. They have, of course, the value of scarcity. But they have little of the expansiveness that the editors promise for later volumes, when Hardy, secure in a comfortable and world-famous old age, became ‘less – rather than more – cautious’.
This is much to be regretted, for the first half of any man’s life is usually more significant than the second. Ambition, philosophy, love and marriage are likelier there, and Hardy was no exception:
In the seventies I was bearing in my breast,
Certain starry thoughts that threw a
On the worktimes and the soundless hours
In the seventies...
It was the decade of his courtship and wedding of Emma Gifford, and their subsequent two years’ idyll at Sturminster Newton (‘their happiest days’); of Under the Greenwood Tree, Far from the Madding Crowd and The Return of the Native; of his abandonment of one profession, and success in another. Had Hardy possessed a different temperament, what letters we could have had! But he didn’t: the starry thoughts remained penned tight, at least as far as personal expression went.
This is not to say that the present collection is without interest. One cannot read six or seven hundred letters by even as reticent a man as Hardy without learning something about him. Possibly the first thing one registers is the rapidity with which he was accepted as a successful novelist by smart circles. It is something for ‘an obscure young architect with few professional prospects, somewhat countrified manners, an unprepossessing appearance, and a not especially striking personality’ to be elected a member of the Savile Club seven years after publishing a first novel at his own expense; yet in another three or four years Hardy was lunching with Lord Houghton, regretting his inability to dine ‘to meet Turgenev’, sending ferns from ‘Mellstock’ to Lady Pollock, and touching Irving personally for two seats for his Romeo and Juliet. Plainly Hardy loved it, and when Emma Lavinia could not accompany him he let her know what she was missing:
Lady Winifred’s divine blue looking decidedly crumpled bout the neck – the
stick-up ruff I mean – not so well as when we saw it in all its new glory. Lady
Magaret was in black lace...
We have become used to the idea that Hardy’s character had unexpected facets; in 1875, for instance, when he joined the Copyright Association (a prudent step: the saddest letter in the book dates from 1872 and reads: ‘Dear Mr Tinsley, I offer you the copyright of Under the Greenwood Tree for the sum of £30 to be paid one month after publication’), as little as two months afterwards he was a member of a delegation that called on Disraeli to request an inquiry into the copyright laws. Clearly the new member must have possessed a more than averagely forceful and cogent personality, to be pressed into such service so soon. Then in 1879 he was a foundation member of the Rabelais Club, a body dedicated to ‘virility in literature’ (hard to imagine what eponym would be chosen today: Henry Miller?); the invitation came to him as ‘the author of the most original, the most virile and most humorous of all modern novels’(in fact, The Return of the Native). Remarking drily that the name of Rabelais would be ‘misleading to many’, Hardy accepted: ‘I like the principles of the club immensely.’ The notion of hearty literary trenchermen jesting about the way of a man with a maid is somewhat depressing today, but there is no doubt that Hardy won a reputation for outspokenness almost as soon as he began to publish.
Club life must have suited him: he was fortunate to be elected to the Athenaeum in the spring of 1891 — fortunate, because Tess appeared later that year, and would certainly not have been to episcopal tastes. This club proved a refuge when Tess was attacked: ‘it is odd that nearly every adverse criticism is written by a fellow Savilean.’ His evident ‘clubbability’ must have resulted in part from his own modesty and readiness to please (sometimes evincing an almost Heep-like humility, as when he speaks of Max Gate to Curzon as ‘a little place I have for writing in’). He sent his books to well-known people with agreeable notes: The Woodlanders to Swinburne, Far from the Madding Crowd to Frederick Locker (‘when I consider the perfect taste that is shown in all your writings’), A Group of Noble Dames to Alfred Austin (‘what a master of expression you are’) and Lord Lytton (‘the number of people who buy [your] books must be enormous’). People sent him books in return: ‘when, alas,’he acknowledges to Edmund Gosse, ‘did I ever write anything to rival
His eye that darts above his pipe
Keen as the flashing of a snipe
Through beds of windless rushes’
when, indeed? No doubt this was all part of the life of a professional author of the time, as was writing to Edmund Yates:
I wish you would say in one line in next week’s World (if you feel like it)
that you think it rather ungenerous of the Globe to find fault with my verses
spoken by Mis Rehan at the Lyceum Theatre...
or again, some years later:
I do not consider it an undue advert of oneself to send you for the World
(if you think it of any interest) the enclosed information which I derive
from numerous unexpected letters
presumably in praise of Tess; they were not used, which is just as well if the authors had not envisaged publication. The tone of Hardy’s letters is uniformly mild and courteous: one searches in vain for a single angry sentence, though it never does to underrate his irony:
The other day I read a story entitled ‘The Wages of Sin’ by Lucas Malet,
expecting find something of the sort therein [that is, plain speaking in
sexual matters]. But the wages are that the young man falls over a cliff,
& the young woman dies of consumption – not very consequent as I
told the authoress.
Nor was he likely to upset people about politics (‘I . . . have always been compelled to forego all participation in active politics’) or similar controversies (‘I have not as yet been converted to a belief in the desirability of [women’s suffrage]’). Yet his opinions however innocently expressed, always ran directly counter to what was accepted:
I have sometimes had a dream that the church, instead of being
disendowed, would be made to modulate by degrees (say as the
present incumbents die out) into an undogmatic, non-theological
establishment for the promotion of that virtuous living on which
all honest men are agreed...
It was thus that Hardy, so to speak, backed into controversy over Tess: one thinks of Leslie Stephen’s exasperated comment: ‘You have no more consciousness of these things than a child.’ He may have been hurt by the hostile reviews, but more often he sounds either bored or irritated (‘The review in the Quarterly is, after all, a mere manufacture, to suit the prejudices of its fossilized subscribers & keep the review alive upon their money’). Other remarks, however (‘They are reprinting frantically’), make it clear there were commercial compensations (‘1 wonder if you think well of the City of London Electric Lighting Co. as an investment?’). But there is not, at this crisis in his life, any more than there was in the preceding 20 years, a single passage that can be cited to prove that its author was not only a man of genius, but of a genius that might be thought peculiarly suited to letter- writing: what more natural for a man who used to notice such things to jot them down in a letter? Here is no darkling thrush, no abandoned sunshade, no satire of circumstances noted from these years when observation was at its sharpest and sensibility at its keenest. As the editors write:
Hardy’s profound reserve — rooted in his personality, his upbringing,
his class-consciousness, his sense of his professional decorum —
made him, and makes him still, one of the most elusive of literary figures
....the central enigma of his long career is that a man who took such risks
and issued such challenges as a novelist and poet should in his own life
have been so discreet, so unsure, so self-defensive.
Only one letter indicates Hardy’s native temperament to any degree; in April 1889, as the Early Life records, he received ‘a long and interesting letter from J. Addington Symonds at Davos Platz concerning 'The Return of the Native’, and here is his reply:
The tragical conditions of life imperfectly denoted in
The Return of the Native & some other stories of mine I am less & less
able to keep out of my work. I often begin a story with the intention
of making it brighter & gayer than usual; but the question of conscience
soon comes in & it does not seem right, even in novels, to wilfully belie
one’s own views. All comedy, is tragedy, if you only look deep enough into it.
‘Tragedy is true guise, Comedy lies’, was the form the aphorism had taken by the time of Winter Words; characteristic, but not quite what was hoped for from this volume.
In the seventies those who met me did
Of the vision
That immuned me from the chillings
And the damps that choked my goings to
In the seventies...
It is a pity that these letters give no plainer delineation of that vision. Instead, we have Hardy dealing with life deftly and discreetly, promptly and pertinently, coolly and courteously, wishing merely to be considered ‘a good hand at a serial’. It is a thought-provoking and at times impressive sight, but not, finally, a compelling one.